Thursday, April 1, 2010

Assigning survivor memoirs

For many teachers finding the time in class to spend on the Holocaust is difficult. In order to engage your students in learning the Holocaust consider using survivor memoirs. The memoirs provide an opportunity for students to further deepen their understanding of the Holocaust outside of class. I chose to have my senior International Baccalaureate History students read memoirs by survivors from Auschwitz. I acquired copies of three different memoirs, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel, and Eyewitness Auschwitz by Filip Muller. These three memoirs provide a variety of experiences from Auschwitz including those from a man (Levi) and woman (Lengyel) along with someone forced to work in the crematoria (Muller).

The class was divided into three large groups with each group reading a different memoir. Students had approximately one month to read their assigned memoir and were required to take notes for the questions listed below. The notes had to be typed and include the page number(s), a brief description, and include as many examples as they could find.

  • What country were they from?
  • What was their family background (brothers & sisters, etc.) & what happened to them?
  • When did they arrive in Auschwitz?
  • Approximately how old were they when they entered Auschwitz?
  • What kind of work did they do in Auschwitz?
  • Based on their experience, what role did religion play in Auschwitz either personally or that they witnessed?
  • What types of resistance did they practice or witness in Auschwitz?
  • What were some of the major/significant events in Auschwitz during their imprisonment that they participated in or witnessed?
  • What helped them to survive?

The day before we began discussion of the memoirs I did a lesson on mapping Auschwitz-Birkenau created by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. The purpose of this lesson was two-fold, one it modeled photographic analysis for students, and two it allowed students to actually see the camp they had been reading about during the past few weeks. Another possibility I have considered for providing background is showing a video on Auschwitz. In particular I recommend the MCHE video Witnesses to the Holocaust: Auschwitz.

The discussion over the memoirs encompassed two days.

Day 1:

  • Class began with students writing a personal reflection on the memoir they read (5 minutes). I didn’t have a specific question or parameters. I just wanted them to write whatever they thought about the memoir.
  • Next, for each memoir, students were divided into groups of 2 or 3. That meant I had about three or four groups per book. The purpose of the groups was to provide a framework for discussion amongst those who read the same memoir.
  • To facilitate the discussion students participated in a “pass the folder” activity. The groups with the same memoir worked together on this activity. It works best with at least 3 groups per book. Depending on how many groups you have this activity may require completion the next day.
  1. Each group was given one folder.
  2. They had 5 minutes to choose an issue from the memoir to discuss and write it on the front of the folder.
  3. Then 5-10 minutes to discuss it and write their ideas on the issue inside the folder.
  4. Once finished they passed the folder to the next group.
  5. The next group got 5-10 minutes to discuss the issue on the front of the folder and write their thoughts inside the folder.
  6. This was repeated until each group for a memoir had a chance to discuss and write their ideas for each folder.
  7. The folders were then returned to the groups of origin. These groups had 5-10 minutes to read and discuss the ideas that had been written in response to their original issue.

Day 2:

  • The groups from the first day meet for 5-10 minutes to compare their notes to the questions students were required to answer as they read the memoir.
  • Then two (in some cases three) students from each memoir were put together into groups.
  • Each pair had 5-10 minutes to share information from their memoir. The information to share could be the answers to some of the questions or a general summary of the experiences of the author.

Overall, this proved to be one the best Holocaust assignments/activities I have done. The students found the memoirs engaging and thus read them thoroughly. The discussions that ensued were lively and always on topic. Some of the student comments from the reflections indicated that, while the memoirs could be emotionally difficult to read, the students found it hard to put them down. Others commented on the benefit of reading firsthand experiences which they thought gave them a better understanding of what happened. Many had to remind themselves that what they were reading was not fiction. Finally, one student wrote, “I found myself sharing all the shocking things I read with the people around me because I could not believe some of the things she [Olga Lengyel] had to go through.”

1 comment:

  1. I hope that you also encourage the students who have family members who are Holocaust survivors to create memoirs of their own if they haven't already done so. I am both a former history teacher and current editor assisting people to create memoirs and family histories. I know the emotional impact of working with a survivor who wants to tell his or her story. There is no better way for a student to truly understand this history's importance than to participate in preserving it.